On Some Difficulties of Putting in Dialogue Animal Rights with Anthropological Debates: A Historical View in Three Episodes

Abstract

In this paper, I try to identify the reasons why the dialogue between sociocultural anthropology and animal rights theories and movements continues to be difficult and scarce. At first sight this weakness of communication is surprising, if one looks at the amount of anthropological studies on human/animal relationships, in most cases pointing to how animals are considered in many cultures as non-human subjects or persons. For understanding the roots of this state of affairs, I compare the ways anthropologists and animal rights theorists and activists have engaged with the issue of the differences and commonalities between human beings and nonhuman animals. For this aim, I contrast the search, among philosophers and activists, for a universal rational ethical foundation of animal rights, to which natural sciences’ findings can give support, with sociocultural anthropologists’ focus on the embeddedness of human/animal relationships in symbolic systems and in political relationships. In spite of the paradigmatic shifts intervened in a century and half of sociocultural anthropology, I show, through a critical review of the recent works of Ingold, Descola, Viveiros de Castro and Kohn, that even today this difference in approach is far to be overcome.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Today some biologists question that sentience is exclusive of animals, insofar some form of it can be detected too in plants [16]. Sebeok [76] proposes a semiotic distinction between lifeforms as related to differences in mode of nutrition (in turn considered as “ways in which information is maintained by extracting order out of the environment”).

  2. 2.

    The first ground-breaking decision was an India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests police statement of 2013 advising the state officials to deny any proposals that requested the establishment of a dolphinarium on the basis that “cetaceans, in general, are highly intelligent and sensitive, and various scientists who have researched dolphin behaviour have suggested that they have an unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphins should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, even if it did not mean granting a real personhood status to dolphins (see https://io9.gizmodo.com). The following year, a writ of habeas corpus concerning Sandra, a Sumatran orangutan, was issued by an Argentinian court; the court decided, by assimilating her to a self-aware non-human person, that she would no longer be held captive in a zoo (see http://indipendent.co.uk/, news of 22 December 2014). Other similar cases in which the recognition of the status of nonhuman person to some animals was at issue have been subsequently debated in other North and South American courts, which expressed in most cases negative advice.

  3. 3.

    Singer’s central argument is well known: pace Descartes, there is a widespread evidence that all animals are sentient beings which can suffer pain (as well as feel enjoyment), and in this respect differences with how human beings experience suffering are minor. If we accept the principles of Bentham’s utilitarian liberal ethics, the capacity of suffering and enjoying is the “vital characteristic” that gives not only to human beings but to all sentient beings the right to equal moral consideration, constituting a “prerequisite for having interests at all” [78: 7]. It follows that “if a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—insofar as rough comparison can be made—of any other being. […] So, the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient if not strictly shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interest of others” [78: 8–9]. The conclusion is that there is no reason for negating to animals, on the basis of the moral stance maintained by many human beings which Singer [78: 9] calls “speciesism” (“to allow the interest of their own species to override the greater interests of members of other species”), the same equality of legal treatment reserved to human beings in everything which involves their suffering.

  4. 4.

    Full text of Article 13 of Title II states that: “in formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage” (https://ec.europa.eu/).

  5. 5.

    In this regard, Lévi-Strauss views are quite similar to those of Tylor. See below in this article.

  6. 6.

    In some way, Lévi-Strauss criticism of humanism can be compared to Singer’s criticism of speciesism. On the other hand, Lévi-Strauss views pity and compassion mostly as primary feelings, without necessary ethical connotations; Singer, instead, following Bentham’s utilitarian ethics, derives rights of protection of animals from suffering from the extension to them, as equal to humans in sentience, of the same treatment reserved to the latter.

    I must briefly refer to the lack of clarity, not to say confusion, in the contemporary debates on the innate foundations of “empathy”, “altruism”, “sympathy”, “identification”, “pity” and “compassion” both in human and in some other mammals’ species. In effect, the meaning of each of these terms largely depends on the theoretical framework of the scholar using it [1, 17, 33]. Of course, this is not to say the situation on the side of “selfish”, “individualist”, “egoist” and so on, theories of human and animal behaviour, is better.

  7. 7.

    Before Lévi-Strauss, the most notorious attempt in anthropology of engaging with the first issue was the detailed study of Hallowell [45] on Northern Ojibwa worldview as based in their concept of nonhuman beings as “other than human persons” with which relationships were driven by the same ethical principles guiding one’s “living well” with human others. Hallowell nevertheless refrained from using the notion of animism, considering it inappropriate to account for the specificity of Ojibwa’s worldview. In what concerns pre-Lévi-Straussian theories on the second kind of statements, a special mention is due to Lévy-Bruhl’s [63] argument that they are rooted in a “logic of participation”, which coexists with the logic of non-contradiction, often surpassing it in “primitive” peoples. I lack here the space for dealing more in detail with these important works.

  8. 8.

    By this way, “orders or systems of relations (e.g. “nature” and “society”) that appear as separate totalities in everyday life become suspended at the higher level created through ritual action as interdependent parts of a single totality” [84: 149]. Turner also assimilates this “tropic structure of ritual” [84: 153] associated to meaning construction in the cases at issue, with Jakobson’s formulation of poetic function.

  9. 9.

    According to Ingold, for Tylor “culture referred to the progressive development of human knowledge in its various fields—of science, art, law, morality, and so on” [49: 86].

  10. 10.

    As noted by Ingold, the case of the beaver was later taken again by Kroeber, one of the most influent proponents of culture as a “superorganic” domain emerging after organic evolution, particularly of brain, in the human species. With the acquisition of symbolic language and thought, man acquired the capacity of imaginatively planning future actions. So, Kroeber argued the opposite to Morgan: “the human engineer constructs a plan in advance of the execution; the beaver lives merely to execute plans designed—in the absence of a designer—through the play of variation under natural selection [49: 90].

  11. 11.

    I then disagree with Ingold [49] on this point. For Tylor, not even the development of articulated symbolic language (I: 234–239, II: 445–446) instituted a radical discontinuity between “beasts” and “savage” men and between these last and his “civilized” Victorian contemporaries. In Primitive Culture, he exposes his “Interjectional and Imitative Theory” of the origin of language (of which he himself acknowledged that, due to the lack of sufficient evidence, it did not offer “a complete solution of the problem” [86, I: 229]) according to which it at least in part derived from “what may be called self-expressive sounds, without defining closely whether their expression lay in emotional tone, imitative noise, contrast of accent or vowel or consonant, or other phonetic quality” (I, 230), For Tylor, from one side there is a fundamental unity and continuity shared by all human beings with respect to their principles of thought (I, 184); from another, even among most “civilized” peoples, human language, including symbolic and articulated speech (due in this case to what Deacon [22] later called its referential opacity), has remained an imperfect device for pursuing and expressing an “objective” scientific knowledge of the laws of functioning of the natural world of which the same mind is also part. For Tylor’s views on the origins of language, see [67].

  12. 12.

    As I mention below, after being dismissed in later anthropology insofar considered of little theoretical utility for a focus of interest on symbolic systems, the concept of animism has been, since the last decade of the last century, reworked by several scholars, in the context indeed of their criticism of the opposition between nature and culture and their plea for an anthropology “going beyond” this opposition.

  13. 13.

    The decay of the belief of a soul-like personal force animating lifeless things and phenomena proceeded instead from the progress of empirical enquiry and mechanistic explanation based on a purely materialist philosophy (II, 183). Tylor suggested that was the concept of soul in itself to be incompatible with whatever progress of scientific knowledge, insofar its foundation laid on a materialist philosophy: “The divisions which have separated the great religions of the world into intolerant and hostile sects are for the most part superficial in comparison with the deepest of all religious schisms, that which divides Animism from Materialism” (I, 502). As noted by Ingold [49], once he learnt about Darwin’s views on the descent of man, he came to agree that even explanations of “mind” ought to search for its material substrate.

  14. 14.

    This was the case of Bird-David [8] revisiting of animism as a “relational epistemology” (opposed to the modern “dualist” epistemology seen as grounded in the separation of subjects and objects) intrinsically connected with “sharing” as the basic principle of an eco-cosmological sociality and sensibility involving in the same network humans and nonhumans.

  15. 15.

    Ingold himself argues that they do not, explicitly disagreeing on the point with [68] and [44].

  16. 16.

    Since Being Alive [51], he indeed argues for integrating the “dwelling perspective” with what he has called the “perspective of the line”: “The latest phase—the one I am in now—is an exploration of the idea that life is lived along lines. […] I have not ceased thinking about dwelling in my current explorations in the comparative anthropology of the line, which grew from the realisation that every being is instantiated in the world as a path of movement along a way of life. Or to trace the progression of my thinking in reverse: to lay a path through the world is to dwell” [51: 4].

  17. 17.

    Of course, the so-called “ontological” approaches by no means exhaust the range of studies, researches and reflections on human/animals produced by anthropologists during recent years. Other approaches are exploring the potentialities of crossing Animal Studies with anthropological issues and modes of inquiry [47, 71]. Another emerging field is that of “multispecies ethnography” [52].

  18. 18.

    It is interesting to note how Descola’s special emphasis on the field of law for detecting more general changes in what concerns recognition of animals’ personhood immediately recalls the analogous special stress Mauss [65] put on the key innovations introduced with Roman Law for the historical emergence of modern concepts of person.

  19. 19.

    He adds: “These dangerous words are used here in a purely—but metaphorically—pragmatic, indexical, or pronominal sense. [For example], “Subject” is the semiotic position correlated with the capacity to say “I” in a real or virtual cosmological discourse. “Object,” by the same token, is that which is “talked” about. […] My metaphors come, therefore, from semiosis, not production or desire: there is no dialectics of “self” and “other” […], but rather alternation and disjunction, that is, exchange (of perspectives)” [87: 219].

  20. 20.

    This line is coherently followed also in his latest work [20] directly dealing with the worsening of the global ecological crisis and the related fears of the “end of the world”.

  21. 21.

    This sympathy for most objectives of animal rights movements do not mean that Derrida and de Fontenay embrace their theoretical foundations. So, Derrida stresses that it is not by recognizing humanlike cognitive faculties to animals but by facing the co-presence of their alterity and lived nearness with us humans that both should live together in a better way.

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Mancuso, A. On Some Difficulties of Putting in Dialogue Animal Rights with Anthropological Debates: A Historical View in Three Episodes. Int J Semiot Law 31, 677–705 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11196-018-9556-y

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Keywords

  • Anthropology
  • Animal ethics
  • Animal rights
  • Cultural symbols
  • Human/animal relationships